What is dynamic range in photography exposure?

Dynamic range in photography refers to a camera’s ability to record a full range of both shadow and highlight details at the same time. It’s how well your camera captures light, but not all cameras have the same dynamic range.

Why you need to understand dynamic range

It’s all about exposure, so if you want well exposed photos, you need to know about dynamic range. You’ll have a good understanding of your camera’s capabilities and what you can do to achieve a good exposure if you can understand:

  • What dynamic range is
  • What affects it 
  • How to manipulate it

Like with everything in photography, when you know how something works you can control the outcome…and create images as you see them in your mind.

Understanding dynamic range in photography

Your camera’s dynamic range

As I mentioned, not all cameras have the same dynamic range. Far from it, because the dynamic range of a camera is determined by the sensor. So the bigger and better the sensor the better the dynamic range.

Compact cameras don’t have as wide a dynamic range as DSLRs, because the sensor is smaller. Full frame DSLRs have a much greater dynamic range than crop frame cameras. 

High end full frame cameras are able to record a higher dynamic range than entry level cameras, but even among the high end cameras some are better than others. More on this in a moment.

Dynamic range gradient from black to white

How is dynamic range in photography measured?

Dynamic range is measured in stops. It’s the same as when talking about adjusting the f-stop for aperture. Each f-stop is double (or half, depending on which way you’re going) the one before. In other words, F2.8 is double the brightness level of F4.

So, getting back to what I was saying a moment ago about how dynamic range varies between cameras…

The dynamic range of:

  • My old Nikon D700 (full frame camera) is 8 stops
  • Nikon D810 (full frame camera) is 15 stops
  • The human eye is about 20 stops

This is why we see better than our cameras – we can see much more detail from the darkest blacks through to the brightest whites.

High and low contrast lighting

Histogram of low and high contrast light conditions

The scene’s dynamic range

But there’s one more aspect to dynamic range – the dynamic range of the subject, or scene.

Here the dynamic range is the difference between the light intensities of the shadows and the highlights. Compare:

  • A high contrast, cloud-free sunny day – lots of bright sunlight and dark shadows – really high dynamic range
  • A low contrast, heavily overcast day – no shadows – easier to photograph, because it fits within the dynamic range of your camera

So, the sunnier it is, the brighter the highlights will be and the stronger the shadows will be, and the greater the dynamic range of the scene.

Dynamic range of high and low contrast light

Histogram high and low contrast light conditions

Further reading: How to read a histogram and why it’s not perfect

What if it’s too bright for my camera?

If your camera is not able to record both the highlights and the shadows of the scene, you’ll have to make a choice about what is important to avoid clipping (detail not being recorded). If you exposure for the:

  • Highlights, you’ll lose detail in the shadows as they’ll be underexposed, or blocked
  • Shadows, you’ll lose detail in the highlights as they’ll be overexposed, or blown out


How to manage dynamic range

Regardless of your camera’s abilities, there’ll come a time when a scene is beyond the capabilities of your camera’s dynamic range.

Once you know your camera, and more specifically it’s limitations, you can start to learn how to work with it. When it comes to dynamic range, there are many things you can do, but they can be summed up into three choices:

  • Reduce the contrast
  • Avoid the contrast
  • Embrace the contrast

1. Reduce the dynamic range of a scene

When you reduce the contrast of a scene, you reduce the dynamic range in photography.

If you refer back to the diagram at the top of the article, you’ll see that if the shadows are lighter, or the highlights are darker, or both, the dynamic range of the scene is less. As a result it’s easier for your camera to accurately record both the light and dark areas without overexposing highlights or underexposing shadows.

There are two ways to reduce the dynamic range of a scene:

a) Lighten shadows

To “lift” the shadows add in light so they are closer in brightness to the more illuminated areas of a scene.

To lighten shadows:

  • Use a reflector to bounce light back into the dark part of the scene
  • Use flash off camera (preferable to on camera) to light the dark part of the scene
  • Shoot in RAW and adjust the shadow slider up in post production
  • Adjust in post production using editing software like Lightroom

Product and portrait photographers manipulate light in the studio and on location with the use of reflectors and strobes to light the subject and/or fill in the shadows.

b) Darken highlights

Alternatively, you can work on the other end of the dynamic range to reduce the highlights. In other words, make the highlights darker.

To reduce highlights:

  • Use a diffuser to block some of the light
  • Use a graduated ND filter to darken a bright sky
  • Shoot in RAW (rather than JPEG) and adjust the highlights slider down in post production

The challenge with portrait photography outdoors is that the sky is significantly brighter than the land and the subjects. Landscape photographers use graduated neutral density filters to reduce the dynamic range of the scene so that they can capture both a well exposed sky and land.

However, most times this won’t work for portrait photographers as it’ll make the top half of your subjects dark. So for portrait photography, it’s best to avoid including the sky in photos so that the sky isn’t overexposed.

Further reading: Overexposure and underexposure tips

2. Avoid high contrast scenes

By photographing in a less “contrasty” area, you won’t have to deal with the extremes of highlights and shadows. 

This is why portrait photographers:

  • Position subjects in shade
  • Avoid photographing in the midday sun when it is brightest
  • Photograph with the sun behind subjects so that their faces are in shadow

If you’ve ever worked at trying to avoid harsh shadows in photos, you’ve been accommodating your camera’s dynamic range. 

Further reading: Hot tips for beach photography in any season

Dynamic range of exterior and interior photos for HDR

In the photo on the left I exposed for the door frame and in the photo on the right I exposed for the scene outside.

3. Embrace the dynamic range of a scene

There’s another way to deal with photographing a scene when it’s beyond the dynamic range of your camera. Embrace it with HDR.

With HDR photography (High Dynamic Range photography) you take several photos at different exposures, known as exposure bracketing, to combine into one HDR image with details in the:

  • Shadows
  • Midtones
  • Highlights

In this way you overcome the shortcomings of your camera for the best of all worlds and get an image that mimics how our eyes see the world.

Real estate photographers use HDR, to show a room interior correctly exposed with the view through the window also correctly exposed, instead of being blown out. 

By stacking photos with different exposures that cover both the interior and the exterior, the full dynamic range can be shown. Potential buyers looking at the photos see the home represented as close as possible to the way their eyes would see it if they were there.

A camera would not be able to capture the full dynamic range.

When new photographers first come across the term dynamic range, it’s usually because they learn about HDR photography.

Further reading: How to use shadows in photos to add atmosphere

Online Lightroom workshop for professional photo editing

Getting creative with dynamic range in photography

Generally, the consensus on exposure is that, if you have to make a choice:

  • it’s okay not to record details in the darkest part of an image
  • but it’s not okay to overexpose the highlights to the point of losing detail

But photography is also about personal style. You don’t have to record the full dynamic range of a scene and you don’t have to ensure that the highlights aren’t clipped.

If you know how to control both the highlights and the shadows, and decide to expose for one at the expense of the other, that’s a creative choice.

Understanding dynamic range is key to making these creative decisions and getting the results you want.

Further reading:

How to photograph silhouettes with ease

What is high key photography, and how to master it

Shadows blocked in low contrast dynamic range photo

In the image above the shadows were blocked to create a silhouette. Below I allowed the highlights to be blown out.

Highlights are clipped in low dynamic range photo

Dynamic range and camera choice

When digital photography first started the emphasis was on megapixels. But there are just so many megapixels that you need and for some years now we’ve had more than enough megapixels in most cameras for most photographers.

Manufacturers have been working on dynamic range, because this is what really matters to photographers. Luckily for us, the dynamic range of cameras has steadily grown and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we’re using cameras able to record the world as well as our eyes see it.

I suggest, when buying your next camera, pay attention to the dynamic range of the camera rather than megapixels.

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